Animation: The Arctic’s Record-Breaking Ice Melt

Arctic sea area covered by ice sets new low

NOAA has created a startling animation of this year’s record shrinkage of ice in the Arctic Ocean. The 34-second clip zooms in from a western hemisphere view and presents as a time-lapse, tracking the ice from January 1 to September 14. This is the first time since NOAA started using satellites to monitor the Arctic in 1979, that sea ice area has shrunk to less than 4,000,000 square kilometers. What happens in the polar regions has a profound effect on the world’s climate.

Crazy Weather? You Might Be Able to Blame the Arctic

Arctic warming is altering weather patterns, study shows

By Andrew Freedman

Path of the jet stream on March 21, 2012.

By showing that Arctic climate change is no longer just a problem for the polar bear, a new study may finally dispel the view that what happens in the Arctic, stays in the Arctic.

The study, by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ties rapid Arctic climate change to high-impact, extreme weather events in the U.S. and Europe.

The study shows that by changing the temperature balance between the Arctic and mid-latitudes, rapid Arctic warming is altering the course of the jet stream, which steers weather systems from west to east around the hemisphere. The Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, due to a combination of human emissions of greenhouse gases and unique feedbacks built into the Arctic climate system.

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Threatened by Rising Seas, Alaskans Ponder Where to Move

Winning their landmark climate suit against energy companies is just one challenge

Following their appearance in a San Francisco Federal Appeals Court this week, Climate Watch contributor Amy Standen was the only journalist to sit down with members of the Kivalina delegation before their return home.

As a group of nine Alaskan natives returns to their coastal village after their day in court, it seems that their plight is about more than getting money to pay for a move to higher ground. It’s an interesting microcosm of the climate conundrum: The past isn’t prologue anymore. History is a faulty crystal ball. How climate change will affect a specific place is anyone’s best guess. And in the case of Kivalina — and likely, many other places — residents’ visions of the future may not line up with those of scientists.

In the past, Kivalina– which lies at the tip of a narrow barrier island off the coast of Alaska – was buffered from storms by a thick layer of ice around its perimeter. But now the ice is melting. Every time a storm hits, many of Kivalina’s 400 residents take shelter in a local elementary school, hoping the waves will spare them. Everyone agrees: The village must relocate. Continue reading

A Close Look at a Melting Arctic

Ice melting in the Arctic, summer 2010

This week, NPR launches a six-part series on, “the changing Arctic,” taking a look at, “what may be the world’s next geopolitical battleground.” Part of that look includes considering the impact of rising temperatures and melting ice, such as freshly-opened strategic waterways and the rush to claim newly-accessible natural resources, like oil and gas deposits.

This focus comes just as MIT releases a new study arguing that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) substantially underestimated the rate at which Arctic sea ice is melting.  The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, forecasts an ice-free Arctic summer by the year 2100.  NPR has created an animated map, showing the Arctic’s loss of summer sea ice for the last 30 years. Continue reading

Arctic Tipping Points Affect World Climate

The Arctic is warming, and what happens there has consequences for California.

Take in the companion radio feature and slide show at The California Report weekly magazine. Gretchen’s slide show also appears below.

Photo: Gretchen Weber

During the two weeks I spent in the Arctic at Toolik Field Station this summer, there was a lot of talk about positive feedbacks and how what happens in the Arctic can affect the entire planet. Thawing permafrost, which I explore in my radio piece for The California Report, is cause for some of the greatest concern.

Another is the loss of sea ice. Mean summer temperatures in the Arctic have risen about three degrees Fahrenheit since 1960, and summer sea ice is shrinking more than 11% per decade.  This year ranks third for the minimum Arctic summer sea ice extent since satellite record-keeping began in 1979.   2007 and 2008 hold the records, and 2009 is in fourth place. Continue reading

Positive Feedbacks in a Warming Arctic

A thermokarst study site near Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

A thermokarst study site near Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The Arctic is warming, almost twice as fast as the global average, according to a recent study.  Much of the accelerated warming here is due to positive feedbacks, including one related to the loss of summer sea ice in recent decades.  White surfaces, like snow and ice, reflect most of the sun’s energy and have a high albedo, while the unfrozen ocean absorbs it.  This creates a feedback loop: the warmer the temperatures, the less sea ice.  The less sea ice, the more heat absorbed, the higher the temperatures.  (As Molly Samuel reported recently, scientists are studying albedo as it relates to California’s snowpack and water supply.)

Another concern in a warming Arctic is thawing permafrost.  Earlier this week, I was out with my polar fellow colleagues measuring the depth of the permafrost here around Toolik Lake with a metal probe and a plastic ruler.  In some places we measured it to be just centimeters below a thin surface layer of plant-supporting soil called the “active layer.”

According to Breck Bowden, a scientist from the University of Vermont who studies permafrost here at Toolik, the latest modeling shows that approximately half of the permafrost in the Arctic will thaw in the next 50 years.  That’s significant not just for the Arctic ecosystems, but potentially for the entire planet.  Scientists estimate that there’s one to two times as much carbon frozen in the Arctic soils as there is currently circulating in the atmosphere, said Bowden.   The problem is that as the permafrost thaws, that carbon (mostly in the form of frozen organic matter), some of which has been frozen for thousands of years, will be processed by microbes in the soil and ultimately released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases: CO2 and methane.

“So why should someone who is living in Alabama, or Nigeria, or the Phillippines worry about what’s going on the Arctic?” said Bowden. “Well, they should worry a lot if there’s going to be a massive amount of CO2 that gets into the atmosphere and your sea level rises or your crops fail because of changes that are related to CO2 changes globally. What happens here in the Arctic is going to affect everything on the globe.”

One indicator that the permafrost in the Arctic is already thawing is the increase in thermokarsts, which are places where the permafrost has thawed and the ground has collapsed, causing a disturbance in the landscape, and often releasing large amounts of sediment into nearby streams. Several scientists, including Bowden, study thermokarsts around Toolik Lake, and they’ve observed that the number of them is increasing.

A group of us were in the field with Bowden yesterday as he paid a visit to one of his research sites about 20 minutes up the Dalton Highway from Toolik Field Station, and a 30-minute hike across the uneven ground that defines the tundra landscape.

Picking our way through the tundra (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Picking our way through the tundra (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

“The Arctic explorers uniformly and universally cursed walking on the tundra, and you can see why,” Bowden explained as we hiked.  “You step on it, you break your ankle. You step between it, you break your ankle.  It’s very lumpy.”

The thermokarst we hiked to was not particularly catastrophic-looking to my untrained eye.  It’s a gully that’s about 300 meters long, 20 meters wide, and about five meters deep.  The collapse happened in 2003, and in the subsequent years it has widened, and vegetation has grown back along its sides, giving them a gentle, convex shape.  Someone like me might have hiked down one side of this thermokarst and up the other without giving it much thought.

Bowden was careful to point out that thermokarsts are a natural phenomenon.  (They also have been known to occur when roads and houses are built in the Arctic without proper insulation.)  But he also believes that the increase in thermokarsts observed in remote areas around Toolik is not natural.

“Thermokarsts have been going on as long as there’s been an arctic landscape, and there have been more of them when it’s warmer and fewer of them when it’s colder,” he said.  “But I do firmly believe that there are more of them now than there were 20 years ago, as a consequence of warming we can document in a variety of places.  The question is, why is the warming occurring?”

A Sauna…for Science

The sauna at Toolik Field Station

The sauna at Toolik Field Station (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Last night I celebrated my first summer solstice in the Arctic by participating in one of the most beloved activities here at Toolik Field Station.  I took a sauna. Then I jumped in the lake, which still had ice on it one week ago, according to the Toolik Naturalist’s Journal.  The sauna at Toolik is spoken about in almost reverential tones, and with good reason.  It’s a small wooden cabin a few dozen yards from the main camp, perched at the water’s edge, and there’s a window that lets you soak up the stunning expanse of lake, tundra, and mountains, while you warm your bones after a plunge in the frigid waters.  “Sauna Nirvana” was how one of the scientists described the experience.

But people don’t just love the sauna for the view and the warmth.  They also love it because here at Toolik, it’s the main way to get clean.  The process entails warming up in the sauna, running outside and dumping lake water over yourself, soaping up with some biodegradeable cleanser, dumping more lake water over yourself, and then running back into the sauna so you don’t freeze to death.  Or, if you are hard-core, you can skip the water-dumping part and just jump in the lake.

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Pitchers for bathing, on hooks outside the sauna (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The station didn’t have any showers at all until 2001 (researchers have been coming here since 1975), and even now, residents are limited to two two-minute showers per week.  Water conservation here is taken very seriously, not because there isn’t enough supply, but because all of the waste water from the showers, kitchen, and outhouses, has to be trucked 140 miles north to Prudhoe Bay for disposal at a cost of $1.24 per gallon.  Because this is such an active research site, scientists aren’t too keen on the idea of a leach field right next to the spots where they are sampling nitrogen and phosphorus.  So, in the name of science, we sauna.

Last summer, 85,680 gallons of waste water were trucked out of Toolik, which translates to 9.77 gallons of water per day, per person, according to Michael Abels, the Toolik Operations Supervisor.   Compare that with the 99 gallons per day that San Franciscans use, per capita, or the 287 gallons in Sacramento.  True, the conditions here are pretty extreme, but it’s an interesting experiment to see what it’s like to get along on 10 gallons of water each day. Of course, no one here is watering any lawns or trying to keep a swimming pool full.  And since we’re only allowed one load of laundry every two weeks, maybe everyone smells a little differently than they do in the rest of the US–but I think most people here would agree that living on 10 gallons of water a day isn’t half bad.

Field Notes from the Arctic: The Journey North

Sleeping quarters at Toolik Field Station, at midnight (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Sleeping quarters at Toolik Field Station, at midnight (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Naively, I thought Alaska’s “Haul Road” would be smooth.  For some reason, I’d pictured the 414-mile route that runs north, from near Fairbanks, to Deadhorse, near Prudhoe Bay, to be a picture of modern asphalt-laying engineering, and that, during our 350-mile drive to Toolik Field Station, I would be able to catch up on some of the sleep I’d been missing after two nights in a University of Fairbanks dorm room (think college students on summer break in a place where the sun barely sets).  After all, this is the road that tracks the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, connecting the largest oil field in North America (which happens to be operated by BP) to the rest of the continent.

As it turns out, I was heartbreakingly wrong.  Roughly a quarter of the road, which is officially called the Dalton Highway, is paved.  And the paved parts are actually the worst. Between the frost heaves caused by the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground, and those Ice Road Trucker tires chewing up the road, driving the Haul Road is more like an amusement park ride, at least from the back seat of a 15-person van.  Suffice it to say that I did not catch up on any sleep during the ride, which turned out to be a good thing, because the second half of this ride was through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (photo: Gretchen Weber)

View from just below Atigun Pass (4643 ft) in the Brooks Range (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

About 70 miles north of Coldfoot, one of the three “towns” along the road, and 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, we passed a sign marking the “Farthest North Spruce Tree.”  It actually wasn’t the farthest north spruce tree we saw, and also, it was dead, but right around there was where we crossed the treeline, leaving behind the white and black spruces stunted from extreme temperatures, and crossed into the tundra.

Back in Fairbanks, over breakfast (reindeer sausage), a biologist named Andi Lloyd had talked about her research on the treeline in Alaska.  There’s a lot of evidence showing that climate in the Arctic is changing faster than any place on Earth.  Here, mean winter temperatures have climbed between six and eight degrees F since 1960, and in summer, between two and three, said Lloyd.  This change is affecting how the boreal forest is expanding, she said, and causing the treeline to move north. In some places, such as the Seward Peninsula, Lloyd says it has moved ten kilometers (six miles) in the last century. “The Arctic is changing faster than we can study it,” said Lloyd.

But the relationship between climate change and the forest is not as simple as warmer temperatures equal northern expansion.  Rising temperatures also mean a drier environment, said Lloyd, as precipitation in the region has not increased as much as temperatures, and more warmth means more evaporation.  Lloyd and others have found that trees in the boreal forest are increasingly drought-stressed, which means they are growing much slower than they did in the mid 1900s, and that they are more vulnerable to insect infestation.

“I had a naive idea that the temperature controlled everything, but then I had a dawning awareness that the boreal forest is a moisture-limited forest,” she said.

There are no trees here at Toolik Station, where I will be for the next two weeks talking to scientists about the changing Arctic. The camp is nestled on the shore of Toolik Lake, in the northern foothills of Alaska’s Brooks Range. During the time I am here, the population of the camp will be about 140 people.  We arrived at 10 p.m., after 13 hours of driving, and the sun was still high in the sky.  It was still up there casting shadows when I awoke at 2:30 a.m.  At breakfast time, however, camp is encased in fog, and the temperature is about 45 degrees–kind of feels like I never left San Francisco.

Climate Watch associate producer Gretchen Weber is spending two weeks at Toolik Station, as a Logan Polar Science Fellow.

The Dalton Highway (photo: Gretchen Weber)

Entering the Brooks Range along the Dalton Highway (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

NASA Launches Arctic Sea Ice Expedition

Coast Guard Cutter Healy (Photo by Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard)

Coast Guard Cutter Healy. Photo: Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard

Next week, a NASA team of more than 40 scientists will take to the seas for a five-week expedition in the Arctic to study how changing conditions there are affecting ocean chemistry and ecosystems.  The voyage, NASA’s first dedicated oceanographic research mission, is named ICESCAPE, which stands for “Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment.”  It will take place aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy.

“We’re  trying to address what is the long term impact of climate variability and change, both natural and anthropogenic, on the biogeochemistry and ecology of the Arctic,” said Paula Bontempi, program manager for NASA’s ocean biology and biogeochemistry research program.

The expedition will give scientists a chance to make field observations about the ocean, sea ice, and the atmosphere in regions where researchers often must rely on remote sensing technology for their data.  One main focus of the research will be to observe how changes, such as a substantial decrease in sea ice, may be affecting the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and the consequent effects on ecosystems.

“The Arctic is in the midst of some substantial changes,” said ICESCAPE Chief Scientist Kevin Arrigo of Stanford.  “In the last 10 years, the ice-free season in the Arctic Ocean has increased by about 45 days.  And this has a big impact on organisms in the Arctic that are keyed to these events.”

Arrigo says that the sea ice retreats about 28 days sooner than it did just a decade ago, and advances about 17 days later. He says this change has shifted the timing of food production.  Phytoplankton, the base of the food chain in the Arctic Ocean, are now growing a month earlier than they did in the 1990s, says Arrigo, which could spell a problem for organisms such as the California gray whales, which time their migrations around peak food production.

“Over the years satellite imagery has shown a significant decline in the Arctic ice cover,” said Don Perovich, a research geophysicist at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, NH, who is part of the ICESCAPE expedition. “But there’s really more to it than just the ice.  It’s important to remember that sea ice isn’t just some isolated component. It’s part of larger system.”

Sea ice, he said, serves as a barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean, limiting the exchange of heat, moisture and gases; acts as a reflector of sunlight; and is a habitat for a rich marine ecosystem.

“It’s an ecosystem where sea ice and biology are intricately intertwined,” said Perovich. “You can think of the ice and the biology as executing this intricate dance, but it’s a dance where one of the partners has started changing its steps. And that partner is the sea ice cover.”

The 2010 ICESCAPE expedition starts in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, will continue across the southern Chukchi Sea and into the Beaufort Sea along Alaska’s northern shelf.  A second expedition is planned for 2011.   NASA estimates the cost of the ICESCAPE project to be $10 million over four years.

The expedition blog has already launched, and will be updated daily once the expedition is underway, according to NASA spokesman Steve Cole.

I’ll be launching my own “Arctic expedition” next week.  Starting June 18th, I’ll be spending two weeks with climate scientists at the Toolik Field Station in northern Alaska, as part of the Logan Science Journalism Program, run by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA.   Check back here for periodic dispatches about the science, the landscape, and the impacts of constant daylight on one journalist’s mental state.